David Willmot, former CEO of Woodbine Entertainment Group (owner of the prestigious Woodbine Racetrack), gave a 2001 speech on the then-state of Ontario Horseracing (which has since taken a significant turn for the worse). With uncommon candor, at least for horseracing, Willmot, a racing-executive legend, shatters horseracing’s greatest myth:

“During the first month that I was CEO, I had a meeting with about eight or ten of our biggest gamblers. During our discussion, I used the word ‘fan,’ and talked about our ‘fans.’ And one of these guys looked at me and said, ‘Don’t insult me.’ I said, ‘Well, what do you mean?’ He said, ‘I am not a fan of anything that you or your rich friends do around here. And don’t call me a ‘patron’ either, because I’m not a patron. I am a gambler. …And you think the only reason we are here is to watch you, your friends, and your brown furry animals enjoy your elitist activity.'”

Mr. Willmot concedes: “The truth of the matter is, racing is a gambling business 99.8 percent of the time and a sport the other point-two percent. A $20,000 claimer on a Thursday afternoon is not a sport.”

Still, there are holdouts who liken horseracing to pro football, a sport with a gambling component. But disregarding for a moment the conspicuous absence of whips, on-field kills, and ex-player abattoirs, 80,000 people do not flood a football stadium to follow office-pool picks. Simply put, the NFL’s success is explained by fandom while horseracing’s, such as it is, by $2 bets (and increasingly by corporate welfare). To the gambler who drives racing, the horse is inconsequential beyond that day’s program; any fleeting emotional bond is the same felt for a blackjack card.

So please spare us talk of ambiance, tradition, the beauty of equines in full stride, and competitive athletes honing their craft. People don’t go to the racetrack for any of that. Horseracing is no more sport than taking a quarter to a scratch-off. It is unadulterated gaming, nothing more, nothing less. Problem is, VLTs have no bones to shatter, roulette wheels no carotids to slash. Gambling in and of itself is not immoral. Gambling on the backs of suffering horses is.

In yesterday’s 9th race at Parx, 3-year-old The Man Himself “broke down in the opening quarter mile and was humanely euthanized.” Had he lived, the colt, who was claimed prior to the race, would have been laboring under a 4th different trainer in 6 1/2 months:

2 starts (4/27, 6/9), William Mott (for Besilu Stables)
3 starts (8/16, 9/2, 9/29) Edward Plesa Jr (for Besilu Stables)
3 starts (10/23, 10/28, 11/11) Joseph Mazza (for Lucille Caruso-Mazza)

In the 10/23 race at Belmont, his first under Mazza, The Man Himself finished 9th (of 10) chasing a $40,000 purse. With no rest for the weary, the not-yet-fully-formed Thoroughbred was thrust into a $28,000 race at Parx just 5 days later; 14 days after that, he was dead.

Yesterday, a 5-year-old stallion named Parcel, who last raced in March 2012, fractured a leg while “breezing” at Aqueduct. He was killed. Also on Sunday, at Zia Park in New Mexico, a pair of 2-year-olds making their debuts were vanned off in consecutive races. To remind, Cafe Bonita and JC Storm are but children. And finally, in Saturday’s 2nd race at Delta Downs, 4-year-old Offshore Banker “was pulled up in mid stretch while bleeding and was vanned off,” making it two consecutive starts (Evangeline, 8/17) the gelding could not finish due to bleeding.

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The following, unless otherwise noted, were “vanned off” American tracks this weekend.

4-year-old Windswept Summer, Charles Town, race 8 (“broke down”)
3-year-old How Bout Junior, Laurel Park, race 2 (“lame,” vanned off)
3-year-old Crabapple, Thistledown, race 4 (“lame,” vanned off)

3-year-old Wasted at Midnight, Hollywood Park, race 3
7-year-old Suyeta, Churchill Downs, race 3 (bled, vanned off)
4-year-old Offshore Banker, Delta Downs, race 2 (bled, vanned off; 2nd consecutive DNF due to bleeding)
3-year-old Long Beach Logan, Golden Gate, race 9
5-year-old Vianney Lane (48th start), Laurel Park, race 6
6-year-old All About Larry, Los Alamitos, race 6
3-year-old Royal Regard, Los Alamitos, race 9
7-year-old Candyonmymind (45th start, $5000 claiming), Mountaineer, race 5
6-year-old Fast Footed Frog, Retama, race 4 (not vanned off but bled)

4-year-old Space Traveler, Aqueduct, race 8
4-year-old Cadet Logan, Calder, race 1 (“broke down”)
3-year-old Pursteena, Churchill Downs, race 2 (bled, vanned off)
5-year-old Smokin Motion (46th start, $3200 claiming), Los Alamitos, race 1
2-year-old Survive, Los Alamitos, race 3
4-year-old Taba’s Gold, Portland Meadows, race 6
4-year-old Win the Future, Thistledown, race 3 (“broke down”)
4-year-old Trilite Thunder, Thistledown, race 8 (“lame,” vanned off)
2-year-old Cafe Bonita (1st start), Zia, race 6
2-year-old JC Storm (1st start), Zia, race 7

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Back in the spring of 2012, Governor Cuomo’s office ordered the New York Racing Association (NYRA) to investigate a spate of racing fatalities (30, in all) at Aqueduct’s 2012 winter meet. Ultimately, the Racing and Wagering Board (RWB) appointed a 4-member “Task Force On Racehorse Health and Safety.” Summarizing the findings, Howard Glaser, Cuomo’s director of state operations, said (The New York Times, 9/28/12), “At the New York Racing Association, concern for the health of the horses finished a distant second to economics.” Here are the highlights:

Lack of Transparency and Disclosure: None of the fatally injured horses had complete necropsies. In addition, there were no urine samples collected and only limited blood testing, leaving open the question of illegal administrations. Although rules exist for when and how much drugging is allowed, trainers failed to report (and the RWB failed to monitor) injections. Furthermore, racing’s ubiquitous corticosteroids often mask breakdown-causing injuries or preexisting conditions like this one, making the track vet’s job all the more difficult. And lastly, there were discrepancies between the trainers’ description of veterinary care and the practicing vets’ actual records, which, by the way, are not required to disclose dose information.

Conflict of Interests: All regulatory vet responsibilities are performed by NYRA vets who answer directly to NYRA racing officials; these officials, not the stewards, execute scratches, and racing officials do not like scratches. In addition, “written protocols containing standards and practices were not provided to the NYRA veterinarians,” leading to inconsistent pre-race procedures and scratch criteria. Worse, the dollar-driven, mind-your-own-business culture discourages whistleblowing: Generally, trainers don’t tattle on other trainers, and jockeys, with ever an eye on future mounts, are disinclined to voice soundness concerns.

Disproportionate Purses in Claiming Races: The Resorts World Racino, which opened in the fall of 2011, resulted in artificially inflated purses in the claiming races that predominate at Aqueduct. The extraordinarily high purse-to-claim ratios “incentivized poor decision-making by a range of stakeholders that increased the risk for mismanagement and subsequent injury.” In short, racing cheap, broken horses for jacked up purses is great for people, bad for animals.


Let’s see if I have this straight: The owners, buying and selling at a frenzied and historic rate, are chasing racino cash with second-rate (at-risk), expendable assets. The trainers, operating in a highly competitive environment, either skirt or outright flout existing drug rules, often with a wink and a nod from private veterinarians who disdain answering to bureaucrats. The track vets, briefed on the primacy of field size, are compromising their professional integrity. And the jockeys are risking their teammates’ lives to preserve paydays.

Whether some or even all of the promised reforms have taken hold is quite beside the point, for as recently as last year, the preceding was standard operating procedure at the New York Racing Association. Says all we need to know.